Actually reading Nephi

There has been some discussion lately about closely reading the Book of Mormon in relation to the YW PP manual controversy. I am always one to encourage a close reading. What I am doing below is not a close reading, but rather a quick note about the perils of casual reading and eisegesis. But please, read closely. It’s a rewarding book.

Frequently, we misread the purpose of Nephi’s slaying of Laban. In my (admittedly limited) experience, we mostly go over 1 Nephi 3:7, talk about how Laban totally deserved the stabbening and beheadening, admire Nephi’s devotion to doing whatever the Lord told him to do, and move on. Generally, we use this story as a prop to reinforce the notion that, although what prophets ask us to do may sometimes be strange or illegal, we should do it because God has his own purpose. Of course, I should add “deeply immoral” to “strange or illegal” up there, but we usually don’t. That’s part of the problem.

Nephi recognizes the prompting as deeply immoral in the text. He “shrunk and would not”. Nephi questions. That he is eventually convinced (or convicted) is a different issue (to be dealt with minimally below). The text emphasizes that Nephi did not just do what he felt the Lord commanded. He, at least initially, was suspicious of the prompting and interrogated it. He certainly had reasons for wanting Laban dead (for instance, Laban had actually tried to kill him a short time earlier). But he still recognized the moral stakes involved in the act. Although he eventually became convinced it was a necessary murder, he recognized that it was murder, all the same.

Consider, in the chronology of the Book of Mormon, when the text was written. It was not written in some sort of journal, kept by Nephi during his exciting wilderness adventures. It was written by a much older Nephi, reflecting back on this moment. Perhaps he actually did just kill Laban and he is looking back, recognizing the repugnance of the act, and trying to justify it to himself. We do know that Nephi carried the burden of his faults throughout his life and that, once settled in the New World, he refused to accept a title of political leadership. We can’t know why he refused to be called king; it doesn’t seem like some sort of devotion to libertarian/liberal ideals since he let his successor be named king; nor does it seem like he preferred the glory to go to God since his people called themselves the people of Nephi and his successors were all given the title Nephi (admittedly, the people choose this name, but it’s a weird choice). Perhaps the sense of unworthiness, evident in the so-called “Psalm of Nephi,” prevented him from fully embracing leadership. Perhaps it stemmed from his acts on a dark Jerusalem night. But this is speculation based on the tiniest textual clues.

Another problem with how we read this is that we tend to take the “follow the prophets” lesson from it. But Nephi isn’t following a prophet. He is engaged in direct revelation with the Lord. And he still questions. But, just as importantly, prophets, intermediaries of any sort, simply don’t feature in this text. Certainly, there are plenty of other texts where people could find the message “follow the prophets,” but this isn’t one. This is a text about the struggle of a particular prophet with a particular form of revelation.

Nephi presents his struggle because he needs us to understand that he did struggle. Following the Lord is not easy, not just in a temporal, worldly sense, but in an internal sense. Nephi is still justifying the act, years later. He doesn’t appear to have ever felt himself free of this sin. So, rather than using this to encourage blind faith, I think that we should use the text to encourage questioning and interrogating promptings, as Nephi does. Used in concert with the story of Abraham at the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we could create a theology of the value of questioning the Lord.

Finally, and I cannot emphasize this enough, if you are receiving promptings that encourage you to do things you find morally repugnant, get to a counselor or psychiatric professional now. Nephi was right to question what was going on in his mind and to try to find a rational justification for it. Nephi had to do this alone, but we enjoy the benefit and presence of many, many trained professionals who are able to provide help. In our setting, the odds that God is calling us to murder are pretty much nil. It is possible that the odds weren’t that different in Nephi’s time.

Comments

  1. mathjazz says:

    We might consider Nephi killing Laban as part of following Lehi’s direction to get the plates. He was commanded to get the plates, and came to a realization that the only way to get them was to kill Laban. He recoiled at this and then had confirmation that this was the way to perform the commandment he had recieved from the prophet. It matches our belief that personal revelation and revelation via a priesthood line of authority go hand in hand, that general authorities give general direction and our individual prayers give specific instruction.
    As for Nephi turning down the role of king, we see a division of the role of prophet and king in the old testiment, and Nephi might be paralleling that. The turning of a name into a title is a common enough occurance. The most famous cases of this are with Caesar, Tzar, and Kaiser, which all come from Julius Caesar’s name.

  2. The questioning narrative we usually focus on in church discourse is the one embedded on the 116 lost pages story.

  3. And nice post, John.

  4. Well said, John – the Laban story is a funny choice for a prototype of unquestioning obedience. In fact, on closer inspection, it’s not much of an example of obedience at all. Nephi is told to do it, and then refuses. In the end, he is convinced that the act is justified and then persuaded that the ends justify the means, He accepts it as a rational choice – a far cry from “But ‘m God and I said so!”

  5. Mathjazz,
    I feel like your first point is stronger than your second. It is true that I hadn’t considered how Lehi fit into all this. I think the notion of prophetic hierarchy between Nephi and Lehi is complicated, because there is not only the notion of ecclesiastical hierarchy but of familial. It is never clear which of the two Nephi is deferring to with his father. This is so much a problem that I don’t know if we can really draw any general rules from how Nephi and Lehi interact (again, there are plenty of better examples of prophets being prophets elsewhere). I’m also really, really skeptical of the “only way” claim. But it is a very interesting point.

  6. Interesting points John…

    We as LDS don’t usually consider the mental/spiritual ramifications of Nephi’s choice for Nephi later on in life. It’s good that he still explains his struggle instead of just becoming numb and skipping over the fact that he murdered Laban. I think I’m going to have to read through Nephi now with the question in mind, just how did his actions that night affect the way he tells the whole story? I would imagine a night like that changed his entire outlook on life.

  7. You have to assume that he did, but I wonder if Nephi ever told his brothers or family that he killed Laban

    I’d imagine he told his dad & wife, possibly Sam, but can you imagine him telling Conan & Lemuel? They’d hold that against him forever!

  8. Jessica F. says:

    I was thinking about this post when I was walking my kids to school this morning, and It makes me sad that I don’t get this kind of interaction with sacred texts in church. I have heard all the excuses but my soul hurts that I don’t have a place to engage with God on this deep level at church. I think it is a waste to not engage with the scriptures.

  9. Ryan,
    I cannot tell you how much I love that you wrote “Conan and Lemuel”. Now that is a comic book I’d love to see.

  10. I couldn’t agree with the OP more and think these types of interpretation of the text are more spiritually fruitful (and probably more correct). I think there is substantial evidence that we should not take Nephi (as edited by Mormon) as a completely reliable narrator. If you are willing to accept for example that Nephi was dead wrong in claiming that the Lamanites were cursed with dark skin (a teaching Jacob prompty corrects in that oh-so-Mormon don’t throw your beloved leader under the bus way the moment Nephi dies (see Jacob 3 which is abitrarily split from the sermon we so love in ch. 2), you can read the rest of the Book of Mormon as an extended anti-racist text where Mormon systematically shows how noxious and insidious racism to the Nephites and Lamanites leading to its inevitable, logical drive towards slavery and eventially violent genocide. Tellingly, it is the uber white and delightsome Nephites that lose out after having a dark-skinned prophet prepares the way for Christ’s visit to the continent.

    In any case, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that we should see Nephi’s killing of Laban as a logical extension of Lehi’s charge to get the plates. Clearly, the moral of this story is NOT when an ecclesiastical leader asks you to do something that justifies committing a felony if that is the only way you see to accomplish it. It is also very unclear in that story as to why killing Laban was required to effectuate eventual plan. Laban was drop dead drunk. How hard would it have been for Nephi to tie him up, take his clothes etc and go be Laban long enough to get the plates? I am fully unconvinced by Nephi’s account in his need to “kill” Laban. If anything, committing murder in getting the plates would seem to ensure a higher liklihood of having your family pursued than just stealing the plates. We never find out what the reaction in the city was on finding one of its wealthy and powerful elite slain in the streets with his right hand servent and some household goods missing. Additionally, given all the God does in the BoM with a little wine (he effectuates an entire city of slaves with some strong drink) the death here appears beyond gratuitous. This story is supposed to make us uncomfortable. I think it is written so that even after trying to buy into the justification for it in the text we are meant to be uneasy. At very least, I think Mormon who edited the text wants us to be uneasy, even if Nephi doesn’t (though I like the idea that Nephi was also uneasy at his own justification).

  11. rah,
    The small plates are (reportedly) unedited by Mormon. So you know.

  12. I am not a Mormon, yet I have read the BOM three times and am now on my fourth. I find the Book challenging on many levels. I really enjoyed your reflections on Nephi. This story of the killing of Laban follows many themes I see in Old Testament, God is very supportive of survivors and the tactics they use to survive; from prostitution, stealing to killing. Laban sitting in his rich environment threatens the survival to a family search for survival and faith. We might see God’s attitude towards the Rich and selfish Laban if we reflect on Jesus parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I think the one characteristic of the BOM that captures me is how brutally honest it is about the trials of life. The building, protection and loss of faith.

  13. I enjoy getting past the superficial meanings we often get from reading scripture. I’m not sure how long this discussion will go, but I, personally, believe that whatever else I might get out of this examination of this incident, that God wanted Nephi to kill Laban. I also believe that Nephi and Mormon were inspired to include this account in the text we have today. For those reasons, I believe this incident is likely rich with meaning. Nephi may well have tried to justify things in his own mind, but I still believe he did what God wanted him to do.

    [I also find it interesting the various ways in which God deals with "the enemy" in the BOM. One incident was referred to above with wine knocking out the enemy. I think in another instance he put them to sleep. God does not do it the same way each time, and I think there is meaning in that]

  14. Sorry for the meaningless followup, but I forgot to check the “notify me” button.

  15. Mark B. says:

    Interesting post. Thanks.

    Two thoughts came to mind–one is the story Elder Oaks told about being mugged in Chicago, and his realization when he considered fighting back that if he did he believed he could have wrested the gun from the mugger and that the mugger would likely be killed in the struggle, and he didn’t want that killing on his conscience, even if it were legally justifiable. Did that choice on a Chicago street 40 years ago help Elder Oaks avoid the issue that might have troubled Nephi for the rest of his days?

    And, responding to what rah says, perhaps the killing was necessary to finally cut off any chance that any of Lehi’s family could back out of the enterprise and go back home. Once Laban was dead, all four of Lehi’s boys would have been suspects. Other servants must have seen the previous interactions where they tried to get the plates from Laban–so, a dead Laban on the street, a servant missing and the brass plates gone all must have pointed directly at those rowdy Lehi boys. So, there was no going back for Laman or Lemuel, no matter how much they kvetched about the lousy food and the bad music in the wilderness.

    (And, yes, I know that they went back for Ishmael and his family after this, but I’m going to assume that that visit wasn’t made public. Laman and Lemuel (and Conan) didn’t spend an evening out at their favorite watering hole in that visit–didn’t want to risk retribution from the Laban family.)

  16. JohnC,

    Well, I consider Mormon’s choice to NOT edit at very least an important editorial choice :) The fact he chose to leave in such a raw, difficult story is interesting. It does seem pretty clear that Mormon isn’t line editing the small plates though it is hard to know what other small or other plates he left out of the compilation. We know he chose some types of plates over others that had various redundancies (and one would assume therefore interesting potential differences). I just get the sense that Mormon, like us, might make very different sense of Nephi’s writing than Nephi did. He gets to see Nephi in the grand scheme of history and at a remove. I guess I feel like there is enough sense for how Mormon thinks to at least speculate he may feel more like us about Nephi’s story than a sense of ease at Nephi’s moral rectitude in the situation. I think a really good question to ask periodically is “What did Mormon think”? It is after all ultimately he (and to a lesser extent Moroni’s book). For example, I really don’t think Mormon thought the whole dark skin thing was a good idea in the end even though clearly some of his forebears thought it was.

    Thanks again for the post!

  17. Joseph M says:

    Recently i ran accross a couple of examinations of the allusians in the Storry of Nephi and Laban to David and Golliath.
    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/display.php?quick&table=jbms&id=551
    http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2001-fair-conference/2001-nephi-and-goliath-a-reappraisal-of-the-use-of-the-old-testament-in-first-nephi

    It has made a lot of difference in understanding Nephi to rmember that this is the story of his REIGN as wel as his minestry, even if he was not called King he full filled the duties of that office. And those duties include dispensing justice among his people and, “wield[ing] the sword of Laban in their defence” against the people lead by his brothers. It makes me think of the tradition of the Starks in G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire theat the lord is always his on headsmanas areminder that justice and life is never cheep.

  18. If we insist on a theology that will admit of no exceptions to the rule, then it would seem to invalidate a whole of body of scripture, from Nephi slaying Laban, to Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit, to the sacrifice of Isaac, or the conquest of Canaan, for example. It’s hard to evaluate these passages only in light of contemporary ethics, which seems to make value judgments on behavior without any appeal to revelation or supernatural experience; whereas these stories in the scriptures seem to make sense only in light of a timeline that includes a mortal, premortal and postmortal reality.

    To the argument that only reason and professional help should be employed in solving moral dilemmas of such a magnitude, it seems to me there can sometimes be real roadblocks to such a proposition. See, for example, evidences that point to questionable decision making in the APA and the making of the DSM-V (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/05/the-real-problems-with-psychiatry/275371/). It seems that at least one decision was made by a vote; and other decisions were apparently made in secret. How much does the APA serve the interests of the public, and how much could it be a cabal for the pharmaceutical industry?

    If you go in any direction long enough, eventually you’ll run out of proveable answers and you will have to go on your own faith (http://mormon-polygamy.org/nancy_rigdon_polygamy).

  19. Rebecca says:

    Sweet! I love the post! Particularly the last paragraph!

  20. “Finally, and I cannot emphasize this enough, if you are receiving promptings that encourage you to do things you find morally repugnant, get to a counselor or psychiatric professional now.”

    I have often wondered how this story would play out in today’s world. Hypothetically, if Nephi could meet with a team of psychiatrists and therapists what does anyone think the end result would be? “After careful consideration we have come to the conclusion that you are in fact receiving homicidal messages from God and we plan on releasing you from our care so that you can proceed with decapitation by sword. It is also quite clear that the messages you are receiving as distinctly different than those received by people diagnosed as schizophrenic or those experiencing extreme psychosis.”

    Anyone willing to sign off on that release?

  21. Thank you for this link very thoughtful!

  22. Rachel E O says:

    Excellent post. I love the idea of “a theology of the value of questioning the Lord.” That also seems to me to be a common theme in the way that the paradigmatic Old Testament prophet Moses interacts with God. On a related subject raised in the OP, I think Nephi also sets out an example of the “value of questioning the prophet” in his relationship with Lehi — though in a respectful, charitable, and humble way. (I wrote a paper on this in a course on moral leadership in college actually, and no, I didn’t go to BYU or anything close to it. We were encouraged to draw upon examples of moral leadership from texts, religious or otherwise, that inspired us.)

    On the subject of Nephi’s slaying of Laban, I recommend Joshua Madson’s provocative essay, “A Nonviolent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” from the recent edited volume, War & Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (Greg Kofford Books, 2012). He would certainly agree with you that Nephi was “trying to justify it to himself” — but he takes an even less forgiving stance and in fact portrays this rationalized murder as the founding narrative of a civilization that ultimately leads it to its own violent destruction. In other words, he places much of the blame for the wars and violence of the Book of Mormon on this inaugural act, and reads that as a powerful cautionary tale against rationalizing violence of any form.

    Madson writes:

    The significance of this foundational act cannot be understated. Not only did this act create a new separate society, it also become the theological and historical foundation for Nephite ideology and traditions about one’s enemies. This tradition held that violence can be redemptive and serve righteous ends–that it is better to kill your enemies than lose your culture and civilization–and memorialized this into Nephite thought with the use of Laban’s sword as an emblem of their nation and power. … In effect, any threat to future Nephite society could be recast into the foundation framework provided by Nephi: just as it was better that the one man perish rather than lose their culture and civilization, so were later Nephites justified in killing Lamanites or others who were now demonized as enemies and existential threats.

  23. Benjamin K says:

    To support cadams’ point, Joseph Smith once said: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another.” (See Rough Stone Rolling, chapter 25, p. 441)

  24. Perhaps it helps to also put page 441 in context. A few paragraphs further up reads “Years later William Law, Joseph’s counselor in the First Presidency, said he was shocked once to hear Joseph say one of his wives “afforded him great pleasure”. “

  25. cadams,
    “If we insist on a theology that will admit of no exceptions to the rule, then it would seem to invalidate a whole of body of scripture, from Nephi slaying Laban, to Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit, to the sacrifice of Isaac, or the conquest of Canaan, for example.”

    I didn’t say anything about exceptions in the opening post. Generally, I believe that they are possible, but they are an understanding between God and individuals and they should certainly not be the basis of general belief. Also, every one of those stories is and should be morally problematic. Further, we should be responsible for every bit of the pain, sorrow, and loss that we cause in this life; we should not pretend to ourselves that we get a free pass because God told us to. To argue thusly is to argue for the worst sort of zealotry.

    “It’s hard to evaluate these passages only in light of contemporary ethics, which seems to make value judgments on behavior without any appeal to revelation or supernatural experience.”
    The point of the post is that they are hard to evaluate with an appeal to revelation and supernatural experience as well. With the possible exception of Eve, these are all people behaving very, very badly.

    “whereas these stories in the scriptures seem to make sense only in light of a timeline that includes a mortal, premortal and postmortal reality.”
    I’m skeptical, but willing to learn. Please go ahead and make these stories make sense.

    “To the argument that only reason and professional help should be employed in solving moral dilemmas of such a magnitude,”
    I never made that argument in the post and I don’t think I subscribe to that argument.

    “It seems that at least one decision was made by a vote; and other decisions were apparently made in secret. How much does the APA serve the interests of the public, and how much could it be a cabal for the pharmaceutical industry?”
    Thank you, Tom Cruise. I cannot emphasize enough how much I think telling the mentally ill to avoid mental health professionals is akin to giving them a rope and encouraging them to hang themselves. Certainly, some mental health professionals are unethical, but so are some lawyers, doctors, teachers, and bishops. We still encourage people to see these folks when they need help and we don’t stigmatize them for doing so.

    Benjamin K,
    I think that goes more toward supporting my point than cadams’.

  26. Kathryn R. says:

    The story itself is nonsense. Even the parts clearly laid out don’t make sense. A rich and powerful king left exposed and unconscious in an ally, no guards. Nephi happens to find him, somehow manages to cut off his head like some sort of super hero without getting any blood on himself or his victim’s clothes. He then undresses the body and puts on his victim’s clothes, which have NO BLOOD so he can disguise himself. Twilight contradictions make more sense than this scenario. I tend to think there is a reason the first edition said it was authored by Joseph Smith.

  27. John Taber says:

    The way I look at it, the law of the day said that Nephi killing Laban could be considered justifiable homicide. (I’m reminded of Arab students asking Hugh Nibley in Book of Mormon class at BYU why Nephi didn’t take Laban out sooner.) But Nephi had been born of goodly parents who taught him that justifiable didn’t necessarily mean justified. The Holy Ghost first reminds Nephi that killing Laban is justifiable under the law, then tells him why in this particular circumstance it is justified. All the same, when Nephi clearly still is wrestling with his conscience over this thirty years later when writing the small plates.

  28. Kathryn,
    stranger things…stranger things.

  29. Abu Casey says:

    Both Grant Hardy (in Understanding the BoM) and Joseph Spencer (in An Other Testament) have some interesting thoughts on Nephi’s killing of Laban. Hardy thinks that the sacrifice that Lehi offers on Nephi’s return is a sin offering for Nephi’s act of murder. I’m not sold on that because I’m not sure that Lehi can make that sacrifice on Nephi’s behalf. Spencer, on the other hand, thinks that Nephi’s dialogue with the spirit is about teaching Nephi what the “commandments” are–they’re what’s in the law of Moses, not what God says through inspiration.

    Someone else has commented somewhere else on the irony of Nephi’s enthusiasm to keep the commandments of God when God then tells Nephi that he must break one of those commandments to accomplish God’s goals for Nephi and his people. I’m not sure if Nephi ever regretted his words in 1 Ne. 3:7, but I imagine it must have hurt when he realized the rock and hard place he was stuck between.

  30. I’ve long felt that Nephi, in his exclamation of “O, wretched man that I am!” had as much to do with the memory of killing Laban as any later sins or transgressions. This particular incident affirms for me that questioning authority, that old holdover from the 60′s, ought to still be considered when we have to make difficult decisions, or are feeling pressed to act against our own first instincts. By instincts, I don’t mean the “natural man” (or woman), but by the inner compass we’ve built up as we have learned to recognize how we determine the correctness of a decision, such as how the Lord works with us for inspiration or promptings, and the value of cumulative experience. If a decision feels wrong, then it is worth taking some extra time to evaluate, and not just resort to an appeal to authority. The law of multiple witnesses comes into play here, I think. Nephi had already developed a means of getting inspiration that worked for him, so it must have been quite an upsetting experience to have that inspiration tell him to do something that everything else told him was wrong.

  31. My geek is going to show, but oh well. Reading the OP and the comments reminded me of Asimov’s three laws of robotics and I started to wonder if, in “I, Robert” the robots feel conflicted when they had to disobey laws 2 or 3 to sustain law 1 or would they simply accept that law 1 is a higher, more important law that *not only* supersedes laws 2 and 3 but rewrites them in certain contexts as well? Nephi was surely cognizant of the commandment not to kill, but he was also aware of the Spirit telling him to kill. The prevailing paradigm seems to be a viewing his response as an acquiescence to the supremacy of the direct revelation *in spite of* the previously established law, but is it not also possible to view this as an understanding that, when God tells you to do X, His previous commandment to not do X is not just subsumed but is no longer in force for that specific instance? Thus, it seems to me that although Nephi could have been troubled by his commission of “justifiable murder” he could alternatively have considered himself completely free of murder either justifiable or non. (I have no idea how he actually felt, mind you, I’m just spitballing here.)

    A more mundane example: As a teacher, I think my students understand that they should not look at each other’s work during a test. However, as the teacher I have the authority to turn a test into a group test so that looking at each other’s work is not only okay, it is by definition no longer cheating. If 10 minutes later I turn it back into an individual test, further looking would be cheating, but that’s because I, in my position, have the authority to declare and undeclare that law at will.

  32. Map “I, Robert” -> “I, Robot”

  33. An interesting take is viewing Nephi’s killing of Laban as an act of sovereignty: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=16&num=1&id=430

  34. @John Taber: How legitimate is this law of justifiable homicide and how certain are we that it existed in Nephi’s day? I know little of modern or ancient Semitic culture so this distinction is not one I ever would have thought of when reading the chapter. (Plus, the Arab students & Hugh Nibley thing… did that really happen or is it referenced somewhere?)

    Verse 11 maybe shows a little of the fact that he feels justified in killing Laban, but the real conflict I sense is that things didn’t work out how he expected them to. In verses 2-3 he uses references to Moses and the children of Israel coming through the Red Sea to convince his brothers (and maybe himself) to try again. The Egyptians were killed by God in that instance in a ‘deus ex machina’-style ending – they weren’t commanded to do anything other than keep walking.

    Nephi exercised faith and I think fully expected God to take care of things – maybe have Laban accidentally leave his front door open, have to leave Jerusalem to visit in-laws over the weekend, or even up and die by God’s hand. I don’t think Nephi expected to come across a defenseless Laban and be told to slay him by his OWN hand in his stupor. After all, why didn’t God have Laban fall down a well or have an aneurysm or something like He did to the Egyptians that pursued Moses & co.?

    I personally doubt that there was any legal justification at all here, even if some sort of justifiable homicide did exist at the time. I mean, Nephi killed Laban while he was defenseless simply to steal some possessions. Now the Lord commanded all of it so it *wasn’t* wrong, but these were bad things to do. Nephi knew that and he was up against his conscience here. But I think he was also up against his expectations of what the Lord’s part would be in all of it, and shocked when told that he was supposed to do the killing. It raises the stakes a bit.

    Great post – I love actually *reading* these scriptures and looking at them afresh. It’s so valuable.

  35. Great thread. This story has long puzzled me. As children and youth we’re taught that the reason for the killing was that Nephi needed the plates, lest an entire people be lost without them. Fair enough, until you realize, as many have noted, that not only would it have been possible to do so without killing Laban, in many respects, it would have been easier to do. Furthermore, through the Prophet Joseph’s work, we learn that a prophet doesn’t necessarily need the actual written word in order to translate/transcribe them. God could have just as easily given Nephi the gift he gave Joseph, of reading sacred text via another medium.

    So, the murder wasn’t needed, and was counterproductive to the task at hand.

    Then why? Why do it, and why pick that story to put in the compilation? I like some of the ideas posted above, particularly the “burning the boat – no going back” theory. But could it be something as simple as Nephi messed up? He didn’t “wrestle with the Lord” enough? Didn’t question enough? That eventually he realized that his action was wrong? The value of the story, then, would be one of redemption. He went on to do great things despite the murder, not because of it. That the murder weighed heavily on him, and eventually he was redeemed by the Expiatory Sacrifice that was yet to be? This would be a powerful story, especially as each of us commit those acts which to our own circumstances are grave.

  36. It would be very difficult to convince me that Nephi murdered Laban (“murder” carries with it a certain mens rea).

  37. Capozaino says:

    I’m pretty sure Nephi evinces an intent to kill, satisfying the mens rea requirement for murder, when he takes the sword from Laban’s hilt and decapitates him. Drawing a sword and swinging it at someone’s head, while admitting that you wanted to kill Laban, is more than mere recklessness or negligence, which would make it manslaughter. If it were a law-and-order episode, he would probably get charged with murder 1, and then would get convicted or would plead down to murder 2, depending on the evidence Lenny was able to gather. The defense attorney would try, unsuccessfully, to enter an insanity plea based on Nephi’s claim that the spirit in his head told him to do it. It might get him a mistrial, like that episode where Bobcat Goldthwait was the defense attorney.

  38. @Mike you are correct, the usage of the word is incorrect, regardless of it meeting the technical/legal definition of it. The word conveys a message, it is a powerful word that infuses a certain feeling which, while probably betraying my own inner bias, does not serve the intended purpose of my post. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

  39. Capozaino: I probably should not have introduced legal language in this. I really meant to approach it from a moral standpoint–the ultimate moral standpoint. My belief is that Nephi obeyed God, and God is the ultimate source of the law. He did not want to take the life of Laban, but once he was convinced that that is what God wanted him to do, he obeyed.

    Certainly, anybody would be extremely skeptical today of a claim that “God told me to do it.” Because I believe the BOM to be “the word of God” (inspired and all that), I believe God told Nephi to do it.

  40. Mens rea was viewed differently under prevailing legal concepts at the time. The story appears to have been consciously constructed, years after the fact, as John C. notes in the original post, to conform closely to the legal requirements for manslaughter, complete with permanent exile in lieu of fleeing to a city of refuge (thus not polluting the land with blood taint — the apparent policy reason behind the pre-trial city of refuge and post-trial city of asylum for the acquited arrangement). (See Exodus 21:13 — “And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand, then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.”) Nephi even specifically took pains to state that he went into the city that night “not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” and going into considerable detail, as John C. points out, about his desire NOT to kill Laban.

    I remember really enjoying Jack Welch’s 1992 article on this from the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=1&num=1&id=621

    So viewed this way, it arguably complies with the Old Testament legal provisions applicable to manslaughter (not murder) and if Nephi had been tried after fleeing to a city of refuge, he could have been acquitted because he did not “lie in wait”, he tries to argue convincingly in 1 Nephi 4 that “God deliver[ed] him into his hand” and he takes pains to express that he did not “come presumptuously upon his neighbor to slay him with guile” (Ex. 21:13-14). If acquited, he could have lived in a designated city of asylum under the ruling high priest died, at which time he could have returned to his ancestral home as normal (under the controlling law at the time).

    At least Nephi appears to have written about this in a way that complies with this framework. He was surely concerned with presenting the episode in a way that would not carry blood taint for him or his people. I think he honestly believed that he was not guilty under the prevailing legal principles. He probably couldnot fathom that the same legal principles would not be in effect for those reading his narrative, a narrative he consciously wrote a certain way to make certain the incident fell within the parameters of manslaughter and containing details that would allow a reader to acquit him (he never had a proper trial because he fled into permanent exile rather than to a city of refuge).

    In other words, I think he probably assumed that the reader would acquit him of murder based on what he assumed would be the reader’s independent awareness of the controlling legal principles of the day. The small plates, I think, had a dual function that much of the rest of the Book of Mormon did not: they served as a politically legitimating record bolstering the Nephites’ claim to political leadership and dominance in actual Book of Mormon times. So including this material presenting the slaying of Laban as a justifiable manslaughter not carrying blood taint was critically important for immediate purposes.

    As to latter-day readers, Nephi miscalculated about our familiarity with conrolling principles of the Old Law. I think he might be surprised to learn that this story is being or even could be used in the latter-days as a narrative to support an abstract “obedience” principle. I actually think he would probably object to using the story as a way to teach a kind of moral relativity, which is essentially how it is used (uncomfortably) by most Mormons (see some of the comments above).

  41. oops, I meant to write “until the ruling high priest died” not “under the ruling high priest died”

  42. Capozaino says:

    Mike: I think the introduction of legal language is helpful because it clarifies what we’re really talking about. Nephi intended to kill Laban, and he actually killed Laban. He had his reasons, just like anybody who intentionally kills another person. The question is whether the reasons he expressly claims to have had, the reasons we can speculate he likely had, and the circumstances surrounding the event justify killing Laban.

    I, too, believe the BoM to be “the word of God.” I don’t, however, believe that God told Nephi to do it, precisely because the God revealed in the BoM doesn’t seem like the kind of God who would require Nephi to kill Laban. And that’s also why I, too, am skeptical of anybody, past or present, who claims that “God told me to do it.” Maybe I’m just reading selectively to confirm my own biases.

  43. I am a person (a) who loves the Book of Mormon, (b) who is genuinely agnostic as its historicity, and (c) whose love of the Book of Mormon is not contingent on its historicity. I am therefore open to variety of perspectives on events narrated in the Book of Mormon.

    Since other commenters have explored many implications of Nephi’s act if he were a historical figure, I will make an observation on the other side. The Book of Mormon works very nicely as a psychobiography of Joseph Smith, in which Nephi is Joseph’s alter-ego. http://www.amazon.com/Inside-Mind-Joseph-Smith-Psychobiography/dp/1560851252

    Robert D. Anderson identifies Laban (with his sword) as Joseph Smith’s leg surgeon, Nathan Smith. Nephi’s killing of Laban thus becomes the revenge fantasy against a person who caused enormous trauma to a little boy.

    I am partial to a larger symbolic interpretation, however. If the Book of Mormon is not a historical record, then Joseph Smith faced the age-old dilemma of pseudepigraphers: he had an important spiritual message to convey, but nobody would listen to him if he conveyed it in his own voice.

    Joseph was then faced with the dilemma of duelling commandments: In order to fulfill the spiritual mission to which he was called, he would have to bear false witness. As Joseph Smith’s alter ego, Nephi is in a double-bind. And against whom must he do violence? The keeper of the scriptures who, like the churches of Joseph’s day, had become corrupt! And why must he do this violence? To spread the word of God to an entire nation that would otherwise perish in unbelief.

    From a symbolic perspective, the Book of Mormon must begin with this trauma. The story of Nephi’s killing of Laban fulfills the functions of (1) alerting the reader to Joseph Smith’s dilemma, albeit in allegorical form, (2) allowing Joseph to provide reasons for the choice he made, and (3) making readers complicit in Joseph’s commandment-breaking (but for a higher purpose!) if they are persuaded by Joseph’s reasons, accept the Book of Mormon, and continue to read it and be moved by it.

  44. Interesting theory. Don’t buy it.

  45. Mike: Out of curiosity, do you dislike my theory because of its merits (i.e. it does not account well for the facts at hand) or because you regard its conclusion as inconsistent with a presupposition of the historicity of the Book of Mormon?

  46. Simply put, it seems you are claiming Joseph Smith made it up. I disagree.

  47. EdwardJ, maybe the go-to theory here is Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence”? It makes sense that Smith’s writing of the Book of Mormon was both inspired by, and felt to be derivative of and inferior to, the Bible. It also makes sense that Smith might have sensed himself as a sort of impostor as the prophetic bearer of the sacred word. So in order to take ownership of the prophetic mantle he not only kills off his poetic rival/father, he finds it necessary to impersonate that rival.

  48. In studying the Bible one learns even though inspired, certain personality traits, vocabulary, grammar and even theological preferences still abound. I think Joseph practiced the art of Jewish midrash, the retelling over a major biblical story the same way Matthew used Moses, or Luke the Samuel stories, or even John with creation. The BOM is full of these type of midrash stories. I think it is always interesting to try to evaluate the author BUT it is better to read the story and seek to understand it. That is why I appreciate these postings. To me the setting of the story is simply one of desperation Jerusalem is surrounded by a fearsome enemy with very little heart. It is about to get its head chopped off so to speak. The saving of his family heritage is essential, even as the saving of Israel’s heritage. Sure God could have killed Laban but in the Bible David kills Goliath, Abraham rescues Lot from another tribe. There is often sadness and regret even with the fall of an enemy. Babylon would fall too getting its head cutoff so to speak, drunk in its own power, and Israel will go on. The use and pain of violence is a human theme. I am grateful for all your thoughts.

  49. This …

    In our setting, the odds that God is calling us to murder are pretty much nil. It is possible that the odds weren’t that different in Nephi’s time.

    …reminds me of some very unfortunate acts as depicted in Under the Banner of Heaven, and certainly elsewhere throughout religious history. Many – far too many, in my book – have justified horrendous acts by deferring to divine revelation. ‘Tis a very slippery slope.

    To paraphrase my friend, if someone/thing ever demanded something like that I’d give him the bird and tell him/her to find someone else.

  50. Dr. Doctorstein: Yes, I was actually thinking of Harold Bloom and meant to mention his Anxiety of Influence, then (as with so many things) I forgot.

    There would clearly be influence anxiety here. But an additional factor is that most people who valued scripture in Joseph Smith’s time (and in our time, I’m guessing) did so in part because they believed it to be historically true. So to the extent Joseph Smith is the author of the Book of Mormon, he had not only to purge-then-imitate his literary forebears, but he had to lie for the Lord about the historical veracity of the text he produced.

  51. Mike: You wrote, “Simply put, it seems you are claiming Joseph Smith made it up. I disagree.” I am actually doing something a little more nuanced than that.

    Given the conflicting literary and archaeological evidence (or lack of evidence in some regards) around the Book of Mormon, it is fair to say there is a legitimate question in the minds of many about the historicity of the book. I honestly do not know if it is a historical account or not. I am open to either possibility. (Or a combination of the two, as per Blake Ostler’s expansion theory. http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V20N01_68.pdf )

    My purpose in discussing my theory about symbolism in the Book of Mormon is not to convince BCC readers that I am correct but to test the strength of my theory, to see if there are good counterarguments out there.

    I understand why a person who disagrees with the theory’s conclusion would refuse to engage it at all for that reason. But I thought there might be people who are agnostic, as I am, or who would be willing to discuss my theory’s merits even though they have already come to their own conclusion.

  52. EdwardJ,
    It is, of course, more complicated than that, even. You aren’t offering an argument; you are offering an interpretive model. As such, there is nothing to refute or even test in your evaluation. We can look at the results and decide if we like them or not, but there really aren’t criteria or standards available to use in judgment.

    This problem is particularly present in instances of psychobiography because, short of time travel and telepathy, there is no way to test inference. At best, you can say that the results make sense to you, based on your understanding of human nature, consciousness, and whatever other relevant factors you believe are present. Every psychobiography is as much a tale of the author as it is of the subject. It is nearly impossible to separate the two.

    So Mike’s reaction is as legitimate as yours. He could certainly be more articulate about it, but there you go.

  53. EdwardJ – I don’t disagree with the idea of putting your theories out there to “test them,” as it were. Perhaps there will come a day when I will look at Joseph Smith/BOM differently, but as it currently stands I believe the story of Nephi killing Laban is contained in the plates delivered to Joseph.

    As far as not articulating my disagreement better, I did preface it with “simply put.” I had no intentions of spending a lot of time on it, lest I come across as trying to convince EdwardJ to my way of thinking. I’m ok with people having different beliefs within the church. I just don’t agree with all of them. But then, does that really make me any different than anybody else?

  54. Some great thoughts here. Also consider the hold to the iron rod story and then actually read and consider how Lehigh and some of his family got there. We don’t necessarily all take the same path, but I’m not suggesting that the church is not needed… just pointing out that in this analogy its clear the traditional enduring scriptural word of god that’s fixed in place sometimes is disrupted by a prophet calling forth to loved ones that he knows another way.

    I think the problem is that one inspired leader offers a great insight and interpretation to a verse and everyone picks it up and keeps running with it rather than consider it more on their own and have further light added by God directly to what they already received from another. Consider any Scripture that’s famously used and you can consider it in a new added light.

  55. questioning says:

    Does it make a difference that the angel tells Nephi before he goes back to the city that the Lord will deliver ‘laban’ into his hands? Why not say he will deliver the plates? Nephi seems surprised about being commanded to kill Laban although the angel was indicating such before hand.

  56. John C. — You wrote, “You aren’t offering an argument; you are offering an interpretive model. As such, there is nothing to refute or even test in your evaluation.”

    I am not a sophisticated scientist or philosopher, so I could be wrong here. But it seems to me that we can judge the effectiveness or quality of an interpretive model by looking at the facts and seeing how well the model accounts for the facts. For example, if someone wrote a thinly veiled autobiography set in ancient times, for which there was no literary or archaeological support from the ancient world, we would say that the best interpretive model would be biographical, as regards the author. On the other hand, given the mountain of historical evidence regarding, say, Abraham Lincoln, we would be unlikely to say that a well-written biography of Lincoln is in fact a psychobiography of the author.

    Again, I am not advocating the position that the Book of Mormon is a psychobiography of Joseph Smith. I’m just saying that that interpretive model is not completely ridiculous, and in fact may account for the literary and historical facts as well as the BoM-is-historically-true model.

  57. @capricornusconstellatus, yes the incident with Nibley interacting with a group of Arab students and their response to the Nephi killing Laban story actually did happen or at least it was substantial enough that he legitimately included the story in his Preface to the 1964 edition of his book, “An Approach to the Book of Mormon.”

    I’m shaking my head here because while even Nephi explained to his people that the brass plates were necessary for “our profit and learning” and this is why he encouraged them to “liken all scriptures unto us” it’s important not to draw incorrect conclusions. Correct conclusions require a correct understanding of the laws under which Nephi was operating at the time when he was persuaded by the Spirit to cut off Laban’s head. Attempting to apply the scenario to our day without applying the correct legal structures obfuscates the true nature of the story.

    I see value in looking beyond the standard lesson of seeing Nephi as valiant and obedient and Laban being an oath breaker and deserving of God’s wrath. But I think you have to be careful in pushing to far beyond conclusions that can be reasonably and historically supported.

    While I would agree that Nephi likely suffered from the effects of taking another man’s life throughout the remainder of his own life, as any being with a conscience would, I think it is inappropriate to hint that Nephi, a prophet of God, acted inappropriately and perhaps of his own will here rather than through the direction of the Holy Spirit. The fact that he struggled with God’s call to slay Laban demonstrates Nephi’s own humanity.

    I am not one who believes in a blood thirsty Creator but this is the same God who called on the Israelites to wipe out the people of Canaan just 800 years previously in order to conquer their land of inheritance. The same God who instructed Captain Moroni to sometimes take dissenters by force and kill them if they refused to support the plight of their people and sometimes take their enemies by stratagem and abstain from taking their lives if at all possible. This was the same God who wiped out the first born of every Egyptian family because they were not part of the covenant people who painted their lintels with lamb’s blood. So why is it so preposterous that Nephi was legitimately called by God to take his sword and cut off Laban’s head?

    John Welch’s exploration shows that Nephi had religious and legal basis for his actions given the legal structure of the laws and covenants that governed his life. Val Larsen offers an interesting perspective that Nephi was likely acting in a sovereign role as the future leader of his people rather than in an individual role as an isolated desert boy who has come to claim revenge against a thief who has deprived him and his brothers of their wealth. And if the State has the right to act in dealing with threats to its ongoing existence then Nephi could be justified in his actions

    So the Spirit again urges Nephi to slay Laban and gives him what, upon reflection, he takes to be an adequate reason to kill the drunken man: “Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). Sacrificing one person to save many others is the ultimate reason of state. Every society must invest in the sovereign the power to sacrifice the few to save the many, if occasion requires. This is the power that sends police to face dangerous criminals and some soldiers to certain or near certain death in order to protect the people. It is the power that executes the criminal few to protect the law-abiding many from their depredations. It was a recognized power of the sovereign in Israel, a power that Caiaphas—the closest thing Israel had to a Jewish sovereign in Christ’s day—invoked when he said, “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50). When the sovereign decides that someone must be sacrificed to save his nation, there is no question of jurisdiction. The sovereign is acting on a question of ultimate concern to the nation as a whole. He is empowered and obligated to take the steps necessary to preserve his people, even if he must act on foreign territory against the citizens of other nations.

    Now, a pacifist like Eugene England would say that there is no justification for taking a life, that doing so leaves a stain on the life of the individual and the people. And in part this is a lesson that is clearly evident in the constant wars that cycle through the history of the several tribes represented in the Book of Mormon’s stories. But even England concedes that God does at times identify exceptional cases when violence is called for and even required.

  58. Thank you well put, we make a mistake by judging generations by our generation standards.

  59. To be frank, Welch considered the wrong kind of talmudic evidence, when there is some that fits Nephi’s model closer.

  60. “Nephi was likely acting in a sovereign role as the future leader of his people”
    This seems awfully weak sauce. Since when is a person justified in exercising powers they expect to eventually be granted in association with some future position? If a twenty-something FDR had opted to knock off some German officer he judged to be a potential threat to the U.S., that would have been okay because FRD would eventually be president? I for one would prefer that he at least first get an authorizing declaration from whomever he expects to serve in congress someday.

  61. FRD->FDR

  62. I think a combination of all these thoughts is needed with hard scriptures such as these. In todays world Laban would be and should be condemned by our standards, BUT I feel scripture reveals there is an evolution of faith. If there isn’t an evolution of faith, there would be no need for additional scripture or for the coming of Jesus. I really feel Laban heard the voice of God the only way he could hear it, and tried to be as FAITHFUL as he could, in helping his father’s guidance to escape, gather the needed faith stories and worldly needs to survive. It is quite possible that an Older Laban would have heard God’s voice differently. Jesus himself said God’s will was not always accurately heard by those of old, when he said: “You have heard it said and eye for an eye” BUT I say unto you.
    Joseph is often called a rough stone, maybe if he had not been murdered, his own struggle with violence among the Saints, forming an army, shooting into the mob that killed him might have led him in a different direction. I have never thought Joseph was martyred but rather murdered and had a right to defend himself, but in the end he really didn’t die as Jesus did trusting his life to God in the mob. No judgment here, all I’m saying is an older Joseph may have.
    I for one give Laban a get out of jail card on this one, though as many of you have added his interior pain remained. There is always a residue of pain in evolving faith.

  63. A martyr is someone who is killed because they refuse to renounce a belief. Joseph Smith was a martyr because he was killed for his religious beliefs. Further, by the accounts we have, he trusted his life to God, saying “I go as a lamb to the slaughter.”

  64. I appreciate your definition it isn’t my tradition. Martyrs die non violently as Stephen Jesus and others. I in NO way wish to undermine his courage or depth of faith! Forgive me if I offended you.

  65. Allen, I’d be interested to hear more about that.

  66. @Allen, care to share and enlighten the rest of us where Welch went wrong?

    @Aaron, the question is whether there was legal justification for Nephi to act as he did in the culture he lived in at the time period he lived. The prophet of God – Lehi – received a revelation from God calling Nephi and his brothers to go claim the brass plates from Laban. They were to be a separate people, a branch of Israel to be preserved and in order for them to survive, as we learn from the sad example of the people of Mulek, they required the scriptural history of the Israelites. So Nephi was on a mission from God in support of a fledgling nation.

    But in my mind the answer is irrelevant because I believe God called Nephi to act as he explains in the scriptures. I can understand why John C would feel that Nephi is crafting a post mortem analysis of his actions to justify what he did. And it’s plausible that looking back many years later that he would feel it necessary to outline the legal justifications for killing Laban by explaining the events in the manner that he does. But, in the end, either God gave the commandment to Nephi or he didn’t. Everything else after that is just speculation that typically energizes an afternoon High Priest’s group lesson.

  67. You still seem pretty loose on whether you’re trying to justify God for commanding it, or provide Nephi with legal justification for following the direction. If you’re point is that anything is okay if God commands it, then I guess you can stop there, but then John’s final paragraph becomes paramount if you want to “liken scripture unto us”. If you want to go further and say it was legally justified because of Nephi’s future position as sovereign, then I go back to my previous comment. Now you suggest instead (I think) that it was legal because Nephi was on a state-sponsored mission authorized by a father that had just become king of a new nation. This seems no less problematic though, since I can hardly use international law to justify setting off on a raft in the ocean, declaring myself president of a new nation, and then returning to my former homeland to wage acts of war or murderous intrigue. You might be suggesting that Lehi’s appointment by God justifies his new state rights, but that’s equivalent to the “God said so, so it’s okay” argument – it’s not much of a legal justification.

  68. I don’t think the Law justifaction can work, since Nephi said specifically he didn’t teach his people “concerning the manner of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25). If he thought the works of the Jews “were of darkness”, would he have taken the time to teach his people the intricacies of Jewish law?

    Also, for the idea that Nephi wrote this with us in mind, where do we get this idea? Granted, Mormon compiled his abridgement with us in mind (as his people were doomed), but Words of Mormon 1:3 says he found the small plates of Nephi after he’d made an abridgement of that time, and included them, unabridged, because he saw there were many important prophecies included. This is, I think, where we get the idea that the Lost Pages were the abridgement, and what we have left is the unabridged writing. Nephi is writing for the benefit of his own people, not for us. We were just a bonus when this record was written.

  69. Joseph M says:

    @Tom
    It s my understanding, from Truman G. Madson’s lectures on the prophet, that Joseph’s use of the gun was not for his own sake but in defense of his friends.

    Also a good examination of the Martyrdom is here
    http://www.fairlds.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/starr-was-joseph-smith-a-martyr-or-a-murderer.pdf

  70. Thank you Joseph, you see I am always learning thanks for the link!

  71. I really am sorry that I wasn’t more sensitive, I really have a good opinion of Joseph Smith.

  72. @Alain: Thank you for the reference.

    I still don’t understand the focus on whether Nephi was justified in killing Laban or not by the legal system of his day. The scriptural account shows that he was, at best, uneasy with the prospect. If he felt legally justified, why would he be hesitant? I think it’s because man’s laws don’t necessarily coincide with God’s laws, and Nephi more had in mind “Thou shalt not kill” than how he could achieve his goal of acquiring another’s property in a legal manner, even if doing so was commanded of the Lord. (Like I’ve said, I have little understanding of the legal situation of Nephi’s day, but it seems safe to assume that that commandment to not kill was a moral statue that Nephi would have observed.)

    Whether or not he was acting on an actual prompting or later trying to ‘creative retell’ his story is an interesting question, but probably not one we’ll be able to answer with the BoM text alone. Regardless, like the OP stated there’s much to be learned from the account as it’s given, allowing deep conversations about apparent paradoxes in commandments, trusting/questioning spiritual promptings and personal revelation, and dealing with paths that go contrary to expectations.

  73. Sigh… typos everywhere… “moral statute” and “creatively retell”… sorry…

  74. “The scriptural account shows that he was, at best, uneasy with the prospect. If he felt legally justified, why would he be hesitant?”
    Why should legal justification to take life remove uneasiness? If offered the chance to legally throw the switch on the electric chair, I expect my instinct would be to “shrink” from the task nonetheless.

  75. @AaronM: That’s exactly my point, maybe I wasn’t clear. The fact that legal justification may allow for killing another yet still cause unease is evidence that one is operating on an additional code of conduct beyond legal code, presumably moral.

    I don’t understand why the question of whether or not he could legally kill Laban is critical to the story. Either way, from Nephi’s account, it seems like he was more worried about the moral code and the fact that his prompting and way to succeed in his task went against both his sense of his moral schema (thou shalt not kill) and how he expected the Lord to prepare the way.

  76. I agree – there is no evidence he was concerned with the legality of the action. His angst appears to be centered on the fundamental (im)morality of the thing. And maybe its distastefulness, regardless of whether or not it was morally justified.

  77. EdwardJ, I don’t buy the interpretation of the BofM you presented for one reason:

    It is incredibly silly to me – and this will be my only response to it.

    You wrote:

    “Robert D. Anderson identifies Laban (with his sword) as Joseph Smith’s leg surgeon, Nathan Smith. Nephi’s killing of Laban thus becomes the revenge fantasy against a person who caused enormous trauma to a little boy.”

    I apologize for my bluntness, but, imo, that is so laughable that it invalidates everything else. I cannot take it seriously.

  78. Love this post, John – especially the following:

    “Another problem with how we read this is that we tend to take the “follow the prophets” lesson from it. But Nephi isn’t following a prophet. He is engaged in direct revelation with the Lord. And he still questions. But, just as importantly, prophets, intermediaries of any sort, simply don’t feature in this text. Certainly, there are plenty of other texts where people could find the message “follow the prophets,” but this isn’t one.”

    Amen – and amen. Just as Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac is not a model to quote in teaching the importance of following prophets, this story has nothing to do with that topic – unless it is meant to disavow the concept, since Nephi obviously felt aversion to disobeying something he viewed as an important commandment given to and articulated by prophets.

    Having said that, and in response to Kathryn R, the story makes complete sense in context. The best possible way for Nephi to buy time for his and his family’s escape would be to strip Laban, cut off his head, dispose of the head in a way that others might not find it quickly (if ever) and hope that the death (once / if Laban was identified) would be attributed to assault and robbery by common thugs – who were plentiful at that time. After all, nothing in the record says Laban was killed in close proximity to the plates or his home.

    As to the idea that it’s impossible for Nephi to have cut off Laban’s head without getting blood all over Laban’s clothing, that’s nonsense. It can be done, if you know how to do it and the blow is quick and clean. It’s all about positioning and form. Anyone who has done the same thing to a chicken or other animal can tell you that. However, more importantly, there is no indication that there wasn’t blood on the clothing, since it was dark and Nephi put Laban’s armor over the clothing. It’s easy to make the assumption that there wasn’t blood on the clothing, but that assumption simply isn’t supported by the text.

    As the OP says, it’s good to actually read the accounts in scriptures (and in any history / religious books) without pre-conceived notions.

  79. I’ll quote Welch, “surrendering a specific named individual to be killed when heathens threaten to kill a whole group unless that one is delivered up.” That is clearly not what is happening in Nephi’s account, so any talmudic rulings on that kind of situation are irrelevant here. There is, however, the concept of “sin for the sake of heaven,” which allows for an individual to trangress the law under extraordinary circumstances, such as preserving the nation. I will have a blog post orividing more detail.

  80. I’ve always found it interesting that Nephi already has the sword out before the angel tells him to take a swing. “Admiring” it. Uh-huh.

  81. @AaronM, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter or revolutionary.

    There’s no loose about it. I stated all of the theorizing is an interesting side note to what actually happened if you believe Nephi’s account – which I do. Further, I explained three different ways of analyzing the legality of what Nephi did based on the source material from other church historians and offered my perspective on each of them. I can see a clear basis for Nephi to have acted under international law but that would depend on a modern Western legal interpretation which I’ve already discounted as useless for this purpose.

    Finally, I stated that even if Nephi was inspired by the Spirit to act, he himself would likely have felt the impact of taking another man’s life for the rest of his own life and perhaps some of that emotion is reflected in the manner that he retells the story.

  82. My point is that those legal arguments seem completely bogus (or at last two of them – I somehow missed the third). Either is such a stretch it comes off like “Well, there must have been some legal justification, because Nephi was a good boy, so let’s make it fit.” Can you identify any legal structure under which normally unlawful action can be justified based on (1) the authority of one’s hypothetical future position or (2) under the authority of a self-proclaimed sovereign with no territory and no people other than his own family, acting within the kingdom that still claims him as a subject? Whether terrorist or revolutionary, these actions are illegal. If either of these arguments defends on the qualification that God chose Nephi or Lehi as now or future king, then the legal argument is supplanted by (and confused with) the idea that any act is justified if God says so.

  83. Angela C says:

    There are two other observations about Nephi’s account that I don’t see here: 1) Lehi doesn’t sanction it or agree with his actions for if he had, Nephi would have certainly mentioned it in his own defense, and 2) by this action, Nephi made the family’s return to Jerusalem, as well as Laman’s inheritance of their family’s wealth, an impossibility. Up to that point, they were hiding capture from Lehi’s opponents. After this action, they had crossed the Rubicon. It makes Laman at least a bit more sympathetic to see that his younger brother’s action resulted in him losing his inheritance and all his connections to wander in a hostile wasteland while his brother Nephi took charge (in a situation Nephi himself created). In a culture where oldest sons had all the rights, it’s a wonder Laman didn’t do more than murmur. But he was an observant Jew raised by a prophetic father. He seems to be getting short shrift from Nephi’s account.

  84. AaronM, please go read the articles linked earlier in the thread. I’m not going to go through and explain the rationale.

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=16&num=1&id=430

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=1&num=1&id=621

  85. @Angela C: Your first observation, while interesting, doesn’t really support your statement that Nephi “would have certainly mentioned it”. I agree that one would think, if Nephi felt guilty, that he would have included any and all important justifications when retelling the events. But there’s no certainty here.

    For one, you’re assuming that Nephi felt guilty about his actions when writing the account, which I don’t think is clearly shown one way or the other. He never explicitly states his guilt or dissatisfaction with himself with regards to the events of that night. But furthermore, the absence of a detail (such as Lehi’s reaction for good or bad) doesn’t tell us anything about it other than that we don’t know. One can’t safely assume that because Nephi didn’t tell us that Lehi sanctioned his actions that he actually didn’t.

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